Botanical Art – Beautiful Florilegia, Besler to Ehret

Christmas Rose; Helleborus niger 1745 (painted) George Dionysus Ehret - watercolour and bodycolour on vellum.
Christmas Rose; Helleborus niger 1745 (painted) George Dionysus Ehret - watercolour and bodycolour on vellum.

Seventeenth century apothecary and artist Basilius (Basil) Besler (1561-1629) was a respected member of the community of Nuremberg where he resided, employed by the Prince Bishop of Eichstätt in Bavaria, a virtuoso and connoisseur of flowers whose cultural formation had been very much shaped by a sojourn in Italy.

In 1600 the Prince commissioned Besler to prepare an illustrated work ‘portraying the botanical richness of the garden” he had established on the hillside overlooking Eichstaat a town south of Nuremberg.

Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis (Garden of Eichstätt) became a landmark publication, documenting garden flowers, herbs and vegetables and exotic plants in rich detail. It took Besler sixteen years of his life to complete this his opus, his sponsor sadly not living to see the work completed or published.

His portrait holding a spring of Basil, a pun on his name, appeared on the frontispiece.

The publication made Besler a ‘prince’ himself among the amazing botanical illustrators of his century, and those the following eighteenth century brought forth. In all Besler recorded some 660 species and more than 400 varieties, making a total of over a thousand plants. He kick started a passion for botanical art that has continued right through to the present day without any signs of it abating.

Basil Besler, Hortus Eystettensis second edition 1644, hand coloured engraving “Aethioipis” courtesy Jamie Allpress Antiques, Malvern, Victoria

His famous work is still considered to be one of the most important, influential and beautiful florilegia ever published.

It seems that humans have always been fascinated with Flora, by which we mean plants of any type, which is not surprising. Knowing the landscape around him was important for the early survival of primitive peoples.

We admire plants and their incredible ability to grow and flourish and, in many instances when displaced from their original environment, to adapt and develop new characteristics to suit the regions in which they found themselves.

During the medieval period in Europe from the sixth to the thirteenth century hundreds of varieties of flowers were introduced into Europe via the crusades although many individual knights continued to undertake expeditions to the Holy Land right up until the seventeenth century.

The philosophy of the period embraced the love of nature, believing natural products were created for the use of many and that that usefulness was implicit in a delight in flowers and gardens.

This interest was fuelled by a desire to understand the medicinal qualities of plants, to combat more fully the many diseases plaguing man at that time.

Framed hand coloured engraving by Basil Besler courtesy Allpress Antiques, Malvern, Victoria

During the sixteenth century pilgrims travelled around Europe and Greece in search of the ‘plants of the ancients’. It was at this time the European plant world began to change with the introduction of oriental bulbs.

At this time too, the science of botany broke away from medicine, to which it had long been subordinate and many new flowers were introduced to the public in countless books.

Before Besler’s day illustrations of plants were about providing a means of recording there many and varied parts for posterity and he certainly transformed the botanical landscape with his beautifully rendered aesthetically pleasing imagery.

Basil Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis (Garden of Eichstätt) was published in 1613. It  consisted of some 367 engravings performed by a group of skilled German draughtsmen.

They transferred his beautiful works onto copper plates, using a series of tiny hatching lines that could be then inked and the image transferred onto paper.

Engravings are very different to the ‘prints’ produced today, and historical engravings have long been sought after now, with original books pillaged and their texts discarded to secure them.

The first edition with the text in Latin printed only 300 copies, with a luxury version without text selling for an exorbitant amount for its day. Single plates uncoloured plates sold for a huge price each, and many of these were later coloured.

To understand how important this was if you know Besler purchased himself a house in the most fashionable part of Nuremberg city at the time, after selling only five coloured copies of his book, you can perhaps begin to get the picture.

Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Draakestein – Illustration from Hortus indicus Malabaricus 1686

Following Besler’s example came botanical works by Dutch military man, traveller, administrator and naturalist who worked for the Dutch East India Company Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Draakestein (1636-1691).

He was also at one time Dutch Governor of Cochin, a princely state of India. His Hortus Indicus Malabaricus published in Amsterdam between 1678-1693 dealt with the medicinal properties of flora in India and contained some 794 hand-coloured copper plate engravings of plant wealth and the medicinal uses of those plants, and is the only source of information about ancient Indian medicinal plants

Abraham Munting Phytographia Curiosa – Cyclamen 1696 courtesy Allpress Antiques, Malvern, Victoria

His brilliance was in the writing, introduction, forwards, dedications and other details given in the various volumes of the work, which contained much information about the cultural, social, political, historical and linguistic conditions of India at the time.

That great Swedish botanist, physician and the main who gave names to plants, Carl Linnaeus said in the preface of his Genera Plantarum (1737) that he did not trust any authors except Dillen (Johann Jacob Dillenius (1684-1747) in Hortus Elthamensis, Rheede in his Hortus Malabaricus and Charles Plumier, a French monk, vegetarian and botanist (1646-1704) who became royal botanist to France’s King Louis XIV (1638-1715).

Linnaeus was to further note Rheede tot Draakestein was the most accurate of the three.

Plumier in particular, was much admired by his own age and fellow botanists right throughout the eighteenth century, for his industrious pursuit of nature and the accuracy of his publications, botanical and otherwise.

He journeyed to the French Antilles and Central America and became a walking encylopedia of knowledge about plant life.

His first botanical work “Description des plantes de l’Amérique” (Paris, 1693) contained 108 plates, half of which represented ferns.

Johann Wilhelm Weinmann, from Phytographia Curiosa 1736 courtesy Allpress Antiques, Melbourne

This was followed by “Nova plantarum americanarum genera” (Paris, 1703-04), with 40 plates.

At a later date Carl Linnæus adopted his system, almost without change, these and other newly described genera arranged by Plumier.

When he died Plumier also left a work in French and Latin ready to be printed entitled “Traité des fougères de l’Amérique” (Paris, 1705), which contained 172 excellent plates.

The Dutch physician and botanist Abraham Munting (1626-1683) 1696, was director of the Hortus Botanicus Groninganus from 1658 – 1683 and published his Waare Oeffening der Planten , with 40 engravings at Amsterdam in 1672.

The second edition was issued in 1682 and a third appeared in 1696 retitled Phytographia Curiosa. It had been enlarged to include 245 engraved plates.

The unusual images in his work typically featured plants depicted in front of a pastoral or classic landscape and accompanied by architectural ornaments such as scrolls, banners, or tablets. He helped the fight against local diseases.

Johann Wilhelm Weinmann (1683-1741) created his florilegium Phytanthoza iconographia between 1737 and 1745. It had 1,000 hand coloured engravings of several thousand plants.

He created a botanical garden in Regensburg and employed a youthful artist Georg Dionysius Ehret as one of his illustrators.

Weinmann used a newly-developed printing process called mezzotint, which allowed far greater detail and shading than the previous engravings.

The first botanical garden in England was founded at Oxford. It had elaborate Italianate fountains, and statues, which were becoming fashionable, particularly in Royal gardens.

George Dionysus Ehret, 1743, London, Bull Bay; Magnolia grandiflora L., watercolour and gouache on vellum courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum, London

George Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770) born at Heidelberg in Germany, settled in England when he was 28. Prior to that Ehret worked as an apprentice for an uncle at a garden of the Elector of Heidelberg, and for the Margrave of Baden.

He also painted his pictures for Weinmann in Regensburg, where he lived for a time and he copied exotic plants from plates in Rheede tot Draakestein’s Hortus Malabaricus for a banker.

Christoph Jacob Trew, a member of the Royal Society of London, the Berlin Academy, and Florentine Botanical Society had a major interest in botany, which led him to sponsor the publication of many illustrated botanical books.

He was captivated when he first saw Ehret’s drawings in 1732 and became his most influential patron.

Over the years Ehret continued to send paintings to him and he published them.

Ehret walked three miles every day to the Physic Garden at Chelsea to observe and paint the coming into flower of a magnificent magnolia tree growing in the garden of Sir Charles Wager at Parsons Green, the first time it had flowered in Europe. His illustrations of it were an immediate success, the images underlining the temporality and fleeting beauty of the living flower.

Working closely with Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, he always favoured the pictorial rather than diagrammatic style of botanical illustration.

He painted the seeds with shadows as if they were actually lying on the page. But the flower itself is represented according to the standard conventions of botanical illustration – that is, in silhouette against a white ground.

Close up detail – Christmas Rose; Helleborus niger 1745 (painted) George Dionysus Ehret – watercolour and bodycolour on vellum, the original now in the V & A at London

Because of this and all his other paintings, George Ehret is considered one of the greatest painters in the history of botanical illustration. He presented his subjects as growing plants, which belongs to the original florilegia tradition as established by Besler, as does the unseasonal butterfly.

However, his illustration contains everything necessary for botanical analysis and identification and so it is no wonder engravers loved to produce his work for publication, and Christopher Trew loved to publish them because they delighted their audience, who could identify them with the flowers they were planting in an English town and country garden.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013

The Friends of the Royal Botanical Gardens Melbourne offers extensive workshops in Botanical Art – Enquiries

The Botanical Art School of Melbourne (BASM) holds courses throughout the year including masterclasses with visiting international and interstate artists

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